Review: Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

Don’t let Alan Wake’s fancy genre nomenclature fool you. This “psychological action thriller” is dyed-in-the-wool survival horror, and it’s damned good.

Alan Wake, the name of the game as well as its protagonist, is the story of a novelist whose world becomes literally enveloped by darkness as he writes and lives his newest story. Spooky. The game follows Alan Wake as he confronts his writer’s block only to find that his creativity is, in point of fact, his worst enemy. Set in a sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest called Bright Falls, the story borrows heavily from psychological genre-bending television programs like The Twilight Zone. So great is the homage that television sets can be found throughout the game that present mock episodes of a fictional show called “Night Springs.” These Easter eggs provide much needed comic relief from the dark narrative, a strategy employed once before in Remedy’s previous franchise, Max Payne.

On that note, Alan Wake showcases some of the most engaging storytelling I have seen in video games. Told in much the same vein as the Stephen King novels referenced by Mr. Wake, Alan Wake’s journey into the darkness of Bright Falls (no pun intended) is filled with rich characters, plot twists that would make even M. Night Shyamalan dizzy, and just the right number of story gaps left to the player’s interpretation. One of the most striking aspects of the game’s presentation is the separation of chapters into mock-television episodes. These come complete with cliffhanger endings followed by catchy tie-in music (think True Blood, if you’re a fan), and classic recaps beginning with “previously on Alan Wake.” All of these proverbial ingredients form a veritable feast for television, horror fiction, and video game afficionados alike. The one major shortcoming is the cutscenes. During these crucial moments in the narrative, the expert voice acting is accompanied by some less-than-stellar facial animations, resulting in out-of-sync voice over. For what is overall a masterful showcasing of Remedy’s talent, this one blemish stands out. One could also gripe about the heavy-handed in-game advertising provided by Verizon and Energizer, but like the advertising in any other visual medium, they can and should be ignored.

After such high praise for the story, does the gameplay match up? The answer is a confident “hell yes.” With Max Payne, Remedy proved two things to me: they’re good at character-driven storytelling, and they can make games with excellent shooting mechanics. Alan Wake isn’t a loose-cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules, but he can still smoke a fool with gusto.  The game plays a lot like a hybrid between Max Payne and Resident Evil 4, blending over the shoulder third-person action/shooting with some cinematic slow-motion after touches. Your adversaries are called “the taken”: people who have been swallowed and spit back up by the darkness. These fast, blurry looking crazies hide in the darkness spouting nonsense that often borders on hilarious, but they’re no joke. The AI is pretty decent here: they’ll ambush you and send the quicker guys to distract you while big bubba with the chainsaw circles behind you. Although I never felt scared, the enemy tactics always kept me tense. To combat the taken, you use light to weaken the darkness that surrounds them. This is done by pointing your flashlight at them; a mechanic that substitutes for an aiming reticule. Once this is accomplished, they can be shot and killed. The death animations are particularly snazzy. Wake’s arsenal doesn’t just include guns – there are numerous other light sources like flares, flashbangs, and the flare gun. These, along with batteries for your flashlight, are littered throughout each level. Like a true survival horror game you are always scrambling to find resources to stave off the terrors that lay ahead. The gameplay throughout remains fairly static. That being said, the mechanics are so solid and enjoyable (save for some occasionally unresponsive dodging) that you won’t care. A game is only repetitious if it’s not fun to play, so repetitious Alan Wake is not.

Alan Wake’s powerful narrative, slick presentation and formidable gameplay raise the title above its competitors. Venerable survival horror franchises that pioneered the genre like Resident Evil have a lot more to live up now with the advent of games like Alan Wake. Hell, Alan Wake made me feel more alone in the dark than Alone in the Dark. As a rabid fan of survival horror, it has been heart-wrenching to see the Silent Hill series slowly vanish into the gaming ether, and Resident Evil become a balls-to-the-wall actioner. Yet given their modus operandi, I never would have expected Remedy to be the ones fueling the reinvigoration of the genre. Color me impressed Remedy.